Until recently, the concept of servant leadership was largely ignored, but starting in 2004, Dr. Bob Liden, professor of management at the University of Illinois at Chicago, set out to prove a correlation between servant leadership and organizational citizenship behaviors (OCBs) in subordinate employees (“i.e., discretionary behaviors not required of employees”). What he found was a positive relationship between servant leadership and “organizational justice (fairness in decisions made regarding employees).” This in turn fostered higher levels of OCBs in the organization’s employees. The evidence showed that the employees of servant leaders have greater confidence in their ability to perform tasks, actively engage in service toward co-workers, are more creative, and have an overall higher level of job satisfaction. In his work, Greenleaf identified the following key practices of servant leaders:
- Self-awareness. When we are self-aware, we are attuned to how we impact others by our behaviors, personalities, biases, etc., and we think about whether there are other, more thoughtful and effective ways to behave.
- Listening. Servant leaders start by listening and observing behavior first. They ask questions to help them understand needs, and then they think about how they can meet those needs.
- Developing colleagues. A rising tide lifts all boats. Enabling colleagues to achieve their full potential elevates the entire organization to where it can serve its clientele better. Servant leaders invest significant assets in employee development. Companies whose leaders engage in the servant-leadership model perform better.
- Coaching, not controlling. Controlling people does not foster desired behavior. Mentoring and inspiring, on the other hand, develop employees so they can reach their full potential.
- Unleashing the energy and intelligence of others. Through coaching, employees learn to make good decisions on their own, are able to achieve their potential and, thus, make their maximum contribution to the organization.
- Foresight. According to Greenleaf, “prescience, or foresight, is a better-than-average guess about what is going to happen when in the future.” It’s what allows leaders to anticipate what will happen rather than only react to it, minimizing the chance they will run out of viable, ethical options.
While the concept of servant leadership appears on the surface to be counterintuitive in societies where individual performance is highly valued, and the goal for individuals is to “be number one” at the expense of colleagues, the research indicates that servant leadership may actually be the most effective means of achieving the highest performance of an organization as a whole.